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Perfect 10: Brandon Paul scores 35 to help Illini stay unbeaten

Updated: January 10, 2013 6:45AM

The journey to the Great Northwest looked ominous to many outsiders. To No. 13 Illinois, though, the long trip to Spokane, Wash., to play No. 10 Gonzaga looked like a great opportunity.

A strong performance at the 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center, where the Bulldogs were 110-7 since it opened in 2004, would prove a lot.

Make that 110-8. Silencing their critics and the Kennel, as Gonzaga’s home is known, the Illini knocked off the Bulldogs 85-74 late Saturday.

‘‘I know a lot of people didn’t
expect this, but we believed,’’ Illinois coach John Groce said. ‘‘That’s all that counts.The guys in the locker room believed. They had confidence. They believed in their ability. They trusted one another and trusted the system. The system’s not perfect yet, but we’re making strides.’’

Brandon Paul led the way with a dazzling 35-point performance that featured 10-for-16 shooting from the field and 10-for-11 from the line.

‘‘Big-time players make big plays on the road,’’ Groce said, ‘‘and he made them at a high, high level.’’

The Illini, who improved to 10-0,
also got big games from Tracy Abrams (14 points, five assists) and D.J. Richardson (11 points). The
accolades could go on for the relentless and confident team Groce has molded. Joe Bertrand had nine points on five shots (4-for-5) and Myke Henry six points on two shots.

After being down 12-3 in the opening minutes, Illinois clawed its way back to a 41-41 halftime tie. The Illini then took charge at the start of the second half, taking their first lead at 44-43 on a three-pointer by Henry.

When Henry made another three-pointer with 15:50 left, Illinois owned a 59-51 lead. An 18-10 run to start the second half didn’t assure anything, but the Illini shrugged off foul trouble to prevail.

Gonzaga (9-1) punched back, but Illinois held firm, opening a 68-59 lead with 8:49 left on a three-pointer by Richardson.

The Illini’s unbeaten start has been questioned by some experts who wonder whether they really are going to continue to be a tough team to beat as the competition ratchets up. But in coming back
after being down 12-3, Illinois showed the kind of determination that gives it the potential to overachieve this season.

‘‘I thought that was the key to the game,’’ Groce said. ‘‘We got popped in the mouth at the start, and we just kind of hung in there. I thought our toughness and togetherness was exemplary.’’

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